Monday, August 9, 2010

Strasburg + Me = ?

Strasburg + Me = ?

by Mike DeNero

What does Stephen Strasburg mean to me? I’ve been seriously pondering that question since spring training.

I must confess that although I, as a wee lad, became a diehard Yankees fan in the mid-1970s, the Yankees and I started to drift apart when we both started seeing other people – me, the lovable, lowly Nats in 2005; the Yanks, players of whom I didn’t approve (e.g., Bobby Abreu, Randy Johnson, Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi my Yankees were Louisiana Lightning, WPIX and the Scooter, Burger King cards in 1977 and 1978, the Reggie Bar, Mick the Quick, Big Dave Winfield, and, later, Jeter, Mariano, El Duque, and Matsui).

I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1998, and while I carried a torch for my beloved Bombers for the ensuing five or six years, the Montreal Expos (soon to be Washington Nationals) caught my fancy. Immediately upon the Nationals’ arrival in D.C. in 2005, I became a dedicated fan (and season ticket holder) who only occasionally secretly pined for the Bombers … at least until they became nearly unrecognizable to me, courting the likes of the aforementioned players, who I would never consider “Yankees” in the truest sense of the word.

I supported the Nats through thin and thinner -- tough times, save for Opening Night at RFK Stadium in 2005 and the opener in 2008 at the new Nationals Park (see picture of me in front of the Red Porch arm in arm with broadcaster and former Reds/Mets 3rd bagger Ray Knight, who is currently a Nationals broadcaster -- if you look closely to the right of Ray Knight, you can see the back of then Nats first baseman, Nick Johnson, who was presumably giving a pre-game interview on that Opening Night at Nationals Park).

One day, in late 2008 (another lean year for the Nats), my father, who still lives in New Jersey, told me that as one of the league’s worst teams, the Nats were in the “running” to get a young pitcher named Stephen Strasburg, a nineteen year-old kid phenom who pitched for San Diego State. “He throws the ball over 100 miles an hour,” my dad said. My reply? “We’ll see.”

Sure enough, the Nats won the right to draft the kid and did so in June of 2009. At the time, I was cautiously optimistic, as I seriously thought the Nats would likely be bullied by Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, and the deadline would pass without getting him to “sign on the line which is dotted,” as Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry, Glenross would say.

I recall being on vacation in late August of last year (2009) at the wonderful beach house my family rented in Sea Bright, New Jersey. Each night, I watched SportsCenter to see if the Nats had managed to sign Strasburg. As luck would have it, they got him with a few seconds to spare before the deadline. Optimistic? Yes, with a side order of pessimism (“Sure, they signed him. But the Nats will surely screw this up somehow,” I thought).

Fast-forward to spring training 2010. The reports from Florida were that he was already the Nats’ best pitcher, even though he’d never stepped foot on a pitcher’s mound in a Major League regular season game. Again, “we’ll see,” I thought.

Like many Nats (and other baseball) fanatics, I followed his every move in the minors as the early season progressed, knowing that he’d probably arrive in D.C. by early June and that I would be in attendance at his first Major League game.

As that early June target approached, I grew more and more anxious. On June 8th, my wife and I attended his first Major League start (see photo below) – we sat five rows from the rail in the upper deck, midway between home plate and first base. The outcome is already the stuff of legend – thus, no need to recount each strikeout and 100 mph pitch here. I, for one, got my money’s worth as soon as he blew away former Nationals underachiever and head case extraordinaire, Lastings Milledge, for his first Major League whiff.

A funny side note is that my wife recorded his final two (of fourteen) strikeouts on her new iPhone camcorder. At one point, with one strike on the final batter, who would be Strasburg’s 14th strikeout victim of the evening, a barely audible comment – “c’mon, mow this bum down” – can be heard from the froggy throat of yours truly. It was within moments that my wife and I agreed to try to attend each game he pitches in D.C. this season. Thus far, we’ve kept our vow (we’re currently four for four, and have great seats for this Saturday’s matchup against the Metsies and then the July 9th game versus the Giants).

But back to my question posed at the outset of this essay – what does Stephen Strasburg mean to me? I am still not entirely sure. I know it’s not grotesquely over-hyped, new “1 of 1” manufactured scarcity cards. I do know that because I (as does everyone else) have a family to support, children to help raise, a career to develop, and a small business to run with my business partner and good friend in our free time, the time I can (or choose to) dedicate to sports fandom is dwindling every day (as it should). But this baseball season is different, solely because of Strasburg.

Because he plays for my Nats, he represents to me something that each underdog (and heaven knows the Nats and, consequently, their fans, are underdogs) longs for or, if he’s lucky, has already witnessed – that precise, glorious moment at which he feels his fortunes begin to turn for the better.

After the Nationals made the final out in their final pre-Strasburg era game (an extra inning affair during which the Nats blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning), Nationals President, Stan Kasten, turned to a friend and said, “Thank goodness that era is behind us.” Kasten acutely recognized that the Nats’ final out in the pre-Strasburg era was the turning point – the worst days were suddenly beginning to appear in the Nats’ caravan’s rearview mirror.

While the Nats have struggled mightily since the June 8th Stras-Mania began (e.g., losing 1-0 to the Royals on June 23rd after Strasburg fanned 9 and yielded no extra base hits; back-back-back blown five and six run leads to the lowlier Orioles just last week; and a total of one run scored in the last three games Strasburg started), and will likely continue to struggle for the near future (at least as long as guys like Nyjer Morgan continue to bat leadoff, our middle infielders continue to kick the ball around the infield, and our non-Strasburg starters continue to roll the ball to home plate), it would be shortsighted for anyone to believe that Strasburg’s mere presence in the Nats’ dugout has not already resulted in the team’s fortunes starting to take a u-turn.

While witnessing Strasburg’s sheer dominance on the mound from my perch in the upper deck of Nationals Park on June 8th (see photo above), I began to believe. Not just in the Nats’ chances of becoming a baseball force within the next few years (although that’s a really fun, yet nearly unfathomable, thought), but in the possibility of the things in our everyday lives that can sometimes seem impossible – the beacon of light at the end of, at times, a seemingly endless tunnel.

It’s always been there, and it always will be, but sometimes it takes a 21-year-old fireballer to remind us.

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